Students Travel to Brazil to Study Urban Anthropology

Posted On October 15, 2012 by Jeremy Craig

Every city that prepares for major world sporting events such as the World Cup or the Olympics makes major changes – not only building new stadiums, but also making socioeconomic changes that affect people, for better or worse.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is no exception, as the country gears up for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.

Georgia State anthropology students investigate impacts in Rio de Janeiro of preparing for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Georgia State University’s Cassandra White has studied Brazil for nearly two decades. With the university’s focus on international experiences for students and examination of major world issues, she ventured to the city this summer with 20 students to examine the lives of the city’s residents as Rio undergoes huge changes.

The associate professor and her students interviewed people from all walks of life, but also focused on the people of Rio’s favelas, impoverished shantytowns that are notorious for crime, violence and drug trafficking, shantytowns the city is trying to change before the eyes of spectators and tourists descend.

“It’s dramatic, the changes that are taking place,” White said. “The students got approval to be a part of the research project, where we asked just one question to the citizens of Rio – how are the changes affecting you, asking in the favelas, and the middle and upper classes.”

White and her students spent a lot of their time in the community of Rocinha, the largest shantytown community in Latin America. The community was recently “pacified,” meaning that the government came in with military and civil police, and the army, to eliminate drug trafficking and other crime.

“They’ve chosen to do this in favelas closer to where the Olympic venues might be,” she said. “Out of the 1,200 favelas in Rio, only 14 have been pacified. It has a lot of different implications for the residents.”

The government has also made aesthetic and other changes, such as issuing land titles and regulating businesses.

Hannah Allen, an anthropology major on the trip, learned a lot about how the changes affected some of the country’s poorest citizens by speaking directly to residents.

“I did get a feel from the Brazilians I spoke to that there were a lot of aesthetic and community changes being made that acted as a double-edged sword,” Allen said. “Regardless of who I spoke to, at least one of these recent changes was mentioned and it was often insinuated that these changes were for the ‘gringos’ to feel safe and not Brazilians.”

Still, many residents noted some of the positives from the changes, said JohnieSue Thurman, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology after the trip and is now pursuing her master’s degree in the field at Georgia State.

“Everyone I spoke to regarding this topic was concerned about the rising prices in the area and the cost of living rising,” she said. “However, everyone saw the opportunities that these events brought to the area.”

Although not many students spoke Portuguese, several students spoke Spanish, which is in the same language family, and were able to understand what the residents were saying.

And despite the language differences, the citizens were more than happy to help with the students’ research, Allen said.

“People were friendly and eager to speak to me,” she said. “People tended to be straightforward and willing to answer all of my questions. Regardless of the awkward situations that I faced, I never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome.”

Students on this study abroad trip gained valuable insights into the practice of anthropology in the field, an expectation that made providing students more study abroad opportunities a priority in the university’s strategic plan.

“This study abroad gave me a chance to expand my anthropological world view and experience what actual fieldwork is like,” Allen said.

To learn more about anthropology at Georgia State, visit

Oct. 15, 2012